Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Supreme Court orders Punjab to keep status quo on SYL Canal land

Court's order significant as farmers reportedly started taking illegal possession of land acquired for the canal

Intervening in water wars, the Supreme Court on Thursday ordered Punjab to maintain a status quo on the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal land.

A five-judge Constitution bench comprising justices Anil. R. Dave, Pinaki Chandra Ghose, Shiva Kirti Singh, Adarsh Kumar Goel and Amitava Roy was hearing a 2004 presidential reference to examine on the legality of the Punjab Termination Agreement Act, 2004 that scrapped all water sharing agreements with neighbouring states.

The court’s interim order came three days after the Punjab assembly, pre-empting a possible ruling from the apex court, cleared the Punjab SYL canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill, 2016, on Monday.

The bill still needs to be approved by Punjab governor Kaptan Singh Solanki and be notified before becoming law.

“An effort is made to make execution of the decree of this court un-executable and this court cannot be a silent spectator," Dave said.

The court’s ruling gathers significance as farmers in Punjab reportedly started taking illegal possession of their lands acquired for the canal with the support of local politicians a day after the Punjab assembly cleared the bill. While presenting the bill on Monday in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha floor, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal said the bill would end all disputes.

Punjab MP Capt. Amarinder Singh in a media statement on Thursday said “I appealed to all Punjabis living along the SYL to fill it immediately. We owe it to our future generations to save our water. Badal government only wants to do politics on this matter and they don’t have any commitment to resolve this issue. The reason we brought Punjab Termination of Agreement Act in 2004 and notified it the same day was because we are committed to save Punjab’s water."

In 2004, the apex court had ruled in a 1996 case that construction of the SYL canal should continue without any hindrance. In 1981, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan signed an agreement for the canal construction in a time-bound manner. “The 2016 Punjab law is in violation of the court’s 2004 ruling disallowing any hindrances in the construction of the canal," lawyer Shyam Divan appearing for Haryana argued on Thursday.

“The bill clearly states that it will notify the terms and conditions for transfers of land and suitable machinery will also be notified by the state government to set all claims of landowners. However, the political statements by the state leaders have encouraged farmers to take such an action. We haven’t got any orders from the government to stop these farmers," said a senior official of the Punjab government on the condition of anonymity.

He added that the farmers in all the three districts—Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib and Patiala—through which the 214-km-long SYL canal passes in Punjab have started bringing machines to clear structures such as canal walls, pillars and forest areas and take charge of their land.

One such farmer, Bhagwant Singh from Patiala district, said: “My land was acquired in 1981. I had 3 kilas of land which was acquired by the government and I got compensation of meagre 16,000 per kila. When I heard that people are taking possession of their land, I also went to see my place and saw barren land with weeds and trees. Farmers are desperate to get their lands back due to increasing debt and losses in farming. Moreover, when political leaders are supporting why should we get back."

The SYL canal has been a bone of contention between Punjab, a state slated for polls next year, and Haryana. It was conceived to share the waters of rivers Ravi and Beas after Haryana was carved out of Punjab in 1966. However, Punjab has been regularly opposing it citing riparian principles.

In 1981, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi negotiated a tripartite agreement between then state governments of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan of recalculating the supplies from the two rivers for their states.

In 1985, after Punjab emerged from nearly two years of President’s Rule and Surjit Singh Barnala became chief minister, work began on building the canal. But the opposition never died, and in subsequent years, even as some 90% of the work was completed, it sparked periodic violence. In 1990, a chief engineer and his assistant were killed by militants apparently to protest the construction of the canal; 30 labourers working at a project site near Chandigarh were killed. The escalating turmoil forced Punjab to stop the work.

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